March 12, 2020
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, questioned General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., Commander of United States Central Command, this morning at a hearing to receive testimony on United States Central Command in review of the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2021 and the Future Years Defense Program.
Inhofe: General McKenzie, in the past year, in response to the Iranian provocations, we have deployed some 14,000 additional troops to the region. You have indicated in your statement that more attacks from Iran are likely, and if so, in what sense are these new deployments to the Middle East deterring – what level of deterrence do they provide, and is there another form of deterrence that might work?
McKenzie: Chairman, I believe that deterrence is born of an appreciation in the mind of the adversary of both capability and will. We over the last few months have demonstrated both of that. As a result of that, I believe we have reestablished a rough form of deterrence, what I would call contested deterrence, with Iran, at the level of state-on-state attacks. By that, I’m referring to things like obviously attributable ballistic missile attacks from Iran launched against U.S. forces. We’ve seen – they’ve stood their missiles down. They’re no longer – I don’t think that’s an imminent threat. What has not been changed is their continuing desire to operate through their proxies indirectly against us, and that is a far more difficult area to deter because they believe they can generate a measure of non-attribution with those attacks. We would not agree because we believe eventually we will be able to distill who is behind these attacks going forward. So we are in a period where state-on-state, I believe we’ve achieved deterrence, but with their proxy activities – and while they are principally in Iraq, they are not limited to Iraq, and there are other areas where they are active as well. That is the period we are in right now with Iran.
Inhofe: As it is right now, we have kind of a deal with the Taliban. We’re bringing our troop level down from 12,000 to 8,600, and they in turn have commitments to us. I’d have two questions – are they keeping their commitments? Does it appear that they’re keeping their commitments to us, and if not what would be the next steps after our withdrawal down to 8.6?
McKenzie: So, Chairman, my answer will obviously concentrate on the military equities because that’s what I’m knowledgeable about. But I would tell you in terms of what we see the Taliban doing militarily, they are honoring some but not all of their commitments. Let me give you an example. Attacks continue. Attacks continue at an unacceptable high rate across the country. Those attacks, while at a high rate, are not delivered into city centers, urban areas or against coalition forces. Instead the attacks are largely generated against Afghanistan outposts, checkpoints and isolated combat units. So those attacks continue, and I would say that that level of the attack by the Taliban is not consistent with an organization that intends to keep its word going forward. However, in other areas, they have not attacked into urban areas, they have not attacked coalition forces. So we have a pretty good picture of what the Taliban is doing and is not doing. We have very good ways –
Inhofe: Well, we have a picture right now but anticipating – let’s say they don’t keep them, and they start going the other direction. What would be our action at that time?
McKenzie: Yes, sir, we are on a glide slope to go to 8,600 U.S. forces with our NATO partners in the country by the middle of summer. At that level, we will still be able to pursue all our objectives in Afghanistan.
Inhofe: So if they do not and it becomes obvious they’re not keeping their commitments, we’d keep 8.6 as opposed to going any lower?
McKenzie: Chairman, that would be not a military decision but a policy decision.
Inhofe: Well, yeah.
McKenzie: But we believe we’re going to have ample opportunity to see if they are going to keep their word. In some areas, they are, and in some areas, they are not. I am troubled by these attacks that continue to occur. There are obviously some political things that have to go forward that I’m not the best person to talk about in terms of the Afghan government, prisoner releases and things like that. All of those things have to occur in order to find a path forward.
Inhofe: Let’s go into Barzani. We had the opportunity – Senator Rounds and I had the opportunity to go through not just Iraq but Erbil, and go up and spend time with him. Of course, there’s kind of two groups that they – the Kurds – are dealing with, and one of them, a lot of people were upset and I think maybe misunderstood what the president was doing when he talked about the Turks coming down into that area. But as far the senior, that’d be Masoud Barzani, he’s one that a lot of people are saying, or trying to project, that he has passed a lot of things to his son and I guess his nephew. It’s been my opinion that he’s still in charge. I’m not going to ask you whether you agree or disagree with that, but I got a very clear message when we spent most of a day with him up in Erbil, and he is very satisfied that were keeping our commitments now. And I really believe – we need to keep reminding people how many Kurds have lost their lives working with us. Would you agree that he’s now in pretty good shape with the United States in terms of we are keeping our commitments to him?
McKenzie: Sir, I couldn’t agree with you more. I believe that is the case. As you know, we have a vision of a unified single Iraq going forward and support that, and we believe he is a key element in that equation going forward.
Inhofe: We’re talking about the senior Barzani.
McKenzie: Sir, we are.
Inhofe: I agree with you. Thank you. Senator Reed.